Earthdawn began its publication life under FASA in 1993. It was designed to be a prequel game to the successful Shadowrun (1989), set approximately 13,000 years before the Shadowrun timeline. In this game world, the level of magic present in the world is cyclical and in Earthdawn the cycle has begun its downward swing, while in Shadowrun it is on an upward swing. The varying levels of magic in the world cause certain paradigm changes. For example, in Shadowrun the magic level has become high enough for the metahuman genes to re-express themselves, resulting in the sudden appearance of elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. At high enough magic levels, creatures from astral space can cross into the physical world.
In Earthdawn, the magic cycle has been at a peak level for 400 years and has just recently begun to diminish. This lowering level of magic has, for the most part, driven the Horrors back into astral space and has allowed the races to reemerge from their kaers (magical fortresses built to protect people from the Horrors). With the retreat of the Horrors and the end of the Scourge, the people of Barsaive have reemerged into a changed world. The Horrors wrought massive change on the landscape and weather patterns and destroyed many kaers.
The visuals of Earthdawn are intentionally not northern European, and draw mostly from Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian cultures . The art for the book has been recycled from previous editions and while Jeff Laubenstein’s art epitomizes the look of Earthdawn for me, it can at times seem dated when compared to other new RPG books. All of the interior art is in black and white and there is a well drawn color map of Barsaive on the endpapers. The standout piece of artwork for this product, and for the entire Earthdawn line to date is the full color cover.
One of the things that stands out with Earthdawn's system is the designers’ efforts in tying the system to the setting. In addition, the writers took great effort to try and logically incorporate many fantasy rpg tropes into the setting; the ruination of many kaers during the Scourge provides Barsaive with readymade and stocked dungeons for characters to explore.
This review will not cover each chapter individually but will combine them into thematic groups as seen below.
In the interest of full disclosure I did receive a free copy of this book for review.
The first section of the book details character creation and the various powers and abilities they can use. The first chapter provides a brief overview of each of the Namegiver (PC) races, eight total, present in Barsaive (the main setting for Earthdawn). The racial descriptions begin with a brief in-character glimpse of the race's attitudes followed by a longer objective look at the race including a short history, physical description, and social structure. This is followed by rules information like attribute modifiers, and in game abilities such as heat sight, low light vision, etc.
In the province of Barsaive, dwarfs are the most dominant race as they are primarily responsible for the building of the kaers that all peoples sheltered in during the Scourge; this prominance of dwarfs is different from most fantasy settings where humans are the dominant race. Dwarfs retain their typical taciturnity, clannishness, short stature and beards. The elves of Barsaive are typical fantasy elves: tall, slender (almost freakishly so), and with a strong tie to nature.
Elves are divided into two factions, the first being the ones who remained loyal to their queen at the beginning of the Scourge and became the Blood Elves; the second being those elves who sheltered with the other races in kaers. Blood elves are not a playable group at this time and occupy the role of opposition to the other elves in the setting.
Humans are less culturally homogeneous than the other races, though many have adopted large parts of dwarf culture. The innate versatility of humans is their main feature, and grants them access to abilities normally outside of their Discipline. (I will discuss these later.)
Obsidimen are unique to Earthdawn. They are a sexless race that is born from spirits living within a large rock formation, called a Liferock, and when they emerge they resemble large, squat humanoids made of stone. This stone-like quality makes them incredibly tough, a feature reflected in their racial abilities. Obsidimen periodically return to their Liferock to commune with all of the other living obsidimen that have emerged from it.
Orks are a passionate, free willed race that live in nomadic tribes throughout Barsaive. They are a physically imposing race, standing as tall as elves but half again as heavy. Each ork has a psychological trigger that is caused by a certain situation, chosen by the player, and the ork can opt to either release their anger in a berserk rage or suppress it causing psychosomatic pains. Orks, by the nature of their short lifespans, are driven to live each day to its utmost.
Trolls are the largest race in Earthdawn towering over all other races. They have a bestial appearance, with long lower canines, a pair of horns, and rigid growths on their body. The trolls are divided into three societal groups; the typical troll is from the highlands living in family groups; crystal raiders are a specific set of highland clans that raid other groups; and lowland trolls live among other races. To all trolls, honor is all-important, and governs personal, clan and racial conduct.
T'skrang, another unique race, are swashbuckling lizardmen. They live in villages along or in the major rivers of Barsaive and conduct trade along these rivers. T'skrang believe in fearlessness, passion and bravery, balanced with the needs of the individual and the community.
Windlings are a diminutive race standing only 18 inches tall. They grow two sets of wings and can fly for short periods of time. They live in small clans deep within forests but will travel extensively to gain new experiences and bring new cultural elements to incorporate into the clan. Windlings are inherently attuned to the magical world and can perceive the astral plane, a feat others can only accomplish with training.
The next chapter discussed the various classes a player can choose from. In Earthdawn these classes are referred to, both in and out of game, as Disciplines. In many other fantasy rpgs, classes are simply professions and have little narrative impact on the game. In Earthdawn, only certain people can learn Disciplines and become adepts; all of the player characters are such people. Each of these Disciplines embodies a certain way the character views the world and accesses the magic therein. Within each of these paths is the opportunity for individual expression as adepts see their Disciplines in their own way.
In this book there are fifteen Disciplines described with more to be introduced in later books. Each Discipline is detailed through the eighth Circle (roughly equivalent to level) with details on circles 9-15 in the Earthdawn Player's Companion. The description begins with a brief introduction as to what the Discipline does. This is followed by a list of important Attributes (two attributes central to the Discipline), Karma ritual (how the ritual is performed), Artisan skills (two artistic skill learned before initiation), and Half-magic. In a counter-shaded column are the various talents and other abilities that can be learned by the adept. Each initiate of a Discipline must learn a suite of basic talents and skills, includeing the artisan skills, and five Discipline talents. The players can then further customize their characters by choosing talents from the talent options list. A new set of talent options becomes available at each new status level: novice (Circles 1-4), journeyman (Circles 5-8), warden (Circles 9-11) and master (Circles 12-15). The Disciplines themselves run the gamut from the typical warrior types, various magic users, to thieves, troubadours and weaponsmiths. Each of the Disciplines within a general type provide enough distinction to keep them unique. Notably absent are any kinds of religious Disciplines, as faith is handled a bit differently in Earthdawn and is fully detailed in the Earthdawn Player's Companion.
Each Discipline can perform magical feats divided into Talents and half-magic. Talents represent discrete ways adepts tap into the magic of the world. Many of the talents are also available to characters as skills; these are mundane versions of the talents and typically are less efficient to use. Half-magic represents associated knowledge a character would have that is not covered in the skill system and provide a way to determine the character's success at practical tasks related to his Discipline. Disciplines also have associated Karma rituals. Karma points are used to grant a bonus die to actions in specific situations. The ritual is specific to each Discipline and is performed for 30 minutes, at the end granting a number of Karma point based on the skill rating.
Talents form the core abilities of the Disciplines and are covered in their own chapter. The first part of this chapter discusses the general workings of talents, how talent tests replace certain action tests, durations, ranges and how they interact with other game terms. Following this is a catalog of the talents available arranged in alphabetical order. Each talent lists its step number (steps will be discussed below in the system section), if Karma can be spent on the roll, action type and strain (damage taken by the adept to use the talent). A prose description follows with the use and effects of the talent, with some of the more complex talents getting an inset example of use. This is highly beneficial to new players as much of the game vocabulary is specific to Earthdawn and can create a steeper learning curve if it were not for these examples. Each talent produces only one effect but the number of talents available provide a wide array of effects ranging from initiative modifiers (Air Dance), to emotional manipulation (Emotion Song), to improved attacks (Spot Armor Flaw), and others.
Skills are the mundane counterparts to talents; where talents allow adepts to magically enhance their abilities, skills add bonuses to attribute steps. Skills are seen mainly as the province of ordinary folk, although adepts do learn some skills. Skills come in two broad categories. The first represent specific knowledge that must be acquired through training; these have no default; the second set of skills represents more general knowledge, and characters can use them untrained, defaulting to the appropriate attribute to make the test.
There are functionally four types of skills: artisan, general, knowledge and language. Artisan skills are the arts and crafts practiced by all Namegivers as proof of their lack of Horror taint. General skills are general purpose adventuring skills, and many of them have talent equivalents. Knowledge skills represent the adept's knowledge of the world of Earthdawn. Language skills note the languages the adept is fluent and literate in, with each new rank in the skill representing a new language. This system is an acceptable and fair compromise in dealing with the many languages in fantasy settings. (Or perhaps, denizens of Earthdawn are just that much better at learning languages.)
The basic system used in Earthdawn is that of a dice pool and roll over target numbers. The method of determining the dice pool is different than other games. In most dice pool systems the player rolls a number of dice of the same type, most commonly d10s or d6s, and either adds the dice for a total or seeks to exceed a target number on each die. Earthdawn uses the previous method, where all of the dice are totaled to exceed a target number, but the dice used in the roll are determined by a chart . Every attribute, talent, and skill is rated with a step number, and these numbers are added together and cross referenced on a chart to determine which dice to roll. For example, a warrior has a Dexterity step of 3, and a melee weapons talent of 4. These combine to a total step of 7, and looking at the step/action dice table, the player would roll a d12. Dice in the pool can “explode” (rolling an additional die if the maximum number is rolled), and an additional die can be added to some rolls by using Karma points. The results of the roll are then indexed on the results table with higher than average results granting a greater amount of success.
Magic in Earthdawn comes in a several varieties with each system closely tied into the setting resulting in an in-depth discussion of the metaphysics of the world that is absent from some other fantasy rpgs. The first chapter dealing with magic discusses the role and key concepts of magic in Earthdawn. Understanding this chapter is vital to the understanding of the following chapters discussing specific types of magic. One of the key components to magic in Earthdawn are patterns, metaphysical blueprints present in everything. Patterns define the nature of each thing in the world and alterations to the person or object will alter the pattern and vice versa. Most patterns are of a generic nature, but with exposure to magic generic patterns can become True patterns. Associated with patterns is the importance of names. Names help solidify and define a specific pattern, and Names bind people, items and places tightly together. These bonds can be reinforced and strengthened with the use of magical Threads. To use them effectively a Namegiver must know certain details about the pattern they are attaching the thread to. Astral space is also discussed as being a magical reflection of the physical world though generally inaccessible and imperceptible.
Thread magic is discussed in the next chapter. This type of magic is divided into two categories First are pattern threads, where the adept (yes, all characters can used pattern threads, by learning a specific talent, some sooner than others) weaves a magical bond between an item pattern and a True pattern. One of the more common uses of this type of magic is to gain access to hidden power in magical items, an involved process requiring the adept to learn about the specific item, either through research or talent use, in order to affix the thread. This process is resolved by making various tests but it can move far beyond that in adding more depth and texture to the world by encouraging players to actively investigate the world for concrete mechanical bonuses. The ability to expand the power of an item over time also obviates the "magic golf bag" syndrome of other rpgs. Another use of threads and patterns is the creation of group patterns, where a group of people swear magically strengthened bonds to each other, providing an in-game reason to form adventuring companies. The second major use of threads is in the powering of spells, discussed in the spell magic chapter.
Blood magic is exclusive to Earthdawn, and is exactly what it says it is. This magic draws upon a blood sacrifice and to most Namegivers is a stark reminder of the time just before the Scourge, with a prime example being the transformation of the pre Scourge elven kingdom of the Wyrm Wood into the current kingdom of the Blood Wood . Blood magic can be used for various effects with one of the most common being the powering of blood charms and living armor. Blood charms are items that draw upon the wearer's blood for energy and range from simple charms granting bonuses to crystalline limbs. Living armor feeds on the user's blood to maintain its defensive ratings. Oaths can be sealed by blood and provide benefits for their fulfillment and penalties if they are broken. Another use for blood magic is the acquisition of a familiar, a spirit or creature bound to the adept and granting them several benefits. A final act of blood magic can be performed using sacrifice magic. Some examples of sacrifice magic are provided with the encouragement that players and GMs create their own effects as well.
Spells in Earthdawn draw energy from the astral realm and risk drawing the attention of astral beings, most notably Horrors. To circumvent this problem, spell matrices have been created to safely bind the energy required to cast a spell. Each spell matrix is attuned to a specific spell and requires retuning to hold a different spell, while a spell is in the matrix the spell caster may use that spell repeatedly. As previously mentioned, threads are used in the casting of more powerful spells as the full spell is too complex to be contained in a spell matrix. The threads are tied to the matrix by the caster at the time of casting. Other methods of spellcasting exist but are much more hazardous, potentially corrupting the spell caster.
Following the discussion of spellcasting is the chapter listing the game’s spells. Each spell description begins with various pieces of game information followed by a paragraph describing the method of casting and effects. The spells available are fairly typical ones found in most fantasy rpgs, with some stand-outs being Bone Dance, causing the target's skeleton to move of its own volition, and Hair Frenzy, which makes the target's own hair whip around distracting him.
A very short chapter discussing summoning rounds out the magic section. This chapter discusses how summoning works, including what the summoned spirit will do for the summoner; the perils of repeated summonings of the same spirit and other dangers of summoning astral spirits.
Combat is discussed next and runs in a fairly typical way that would be familiar to most gamers. The catch is that the actions of the players are declared before initiative is determined, and initiative is determined anew at the beginning of each round. Actions that a character can take are listed and include standard actions (physical attack), sustained actions (taking longer than one round), simple actions (actions that take no tests to perform, only limit is how many can be reasonably performed in one round), free actions (enhance standard actions), reserved actions (character reacts to another's actions) and delayed actions (like a reserved action, but cannot interrupt another's actions). Attacks are resolved by rolling against either physical, social or spell defense. Damage is rolled on a successful hit with armor reducing the amount of damage inflicted.Critical hits are supported with a successful enough attack test. Effects of damage are looked at, focused mainly on recovering from damage and wounds. Wounds are a more grievous form of injury sustained when large amounts of damage are done. Earthdawn provides a selection of combat maneuvers including stunning, breaking a shield, tail attacks, defensive stances and mounted combat. A short list of situational modifiers are discussed as well, including cover and darkness rules, common to many rpgs, and rules covering getting blindsided (different from surprised) and harried (distracted).
Advancement is covered in one chapter and examines the use of legend points in advancing a character. Unlike most class and level systems like Dungeons and Dragons, Earthdawn incorporates features of a skill based system as well. Legend points serve a twofold purpose: first the cumulative total is used to determine how widely known the character is; second, players spend them in order to advance their characters’ skills, talents and attributes. Legend points are also used to advance in Circle ranks as well, though there are multiple requirements outside of simple legend point totals that must be satisfied first. A novel way of getting characters to interact more with the world is that when the characters tell the scholars in the Great Library of Throal about their adventures they get a bonus to their legend points awarded for that adventure, additionally, the characters get monetary treasure as well for submitting a record of their deeds. Multi Disciplining is also discussed, and can prove a bit confusing, but the examples provided help greatly in cutting down the confusion.
Rounding out the book is a straight forward equipment chapter containing both mundane and more commonly available magical gear, as well as other equipment and services typically required by adventurers. The final chapter is a brief overview of the province of Barsaive looking at the geography and nations in the area. There is considerable space given over to a discussion of the general geography and environment of Barsaive. The entire region is fairly tropical in nature and gives me the impression of African savannahs, with large monsoonal forests and several rain forests. This environment is greatly different from what it was before the Scourge, and is postulated, in game, that the Horrors somehow contributed to the change, by altering weather patterns. The other major influence on the environment is Death’s Sea, an entire sea made up of lava and kept that way by numerous fire elementals. Needless to say with the changes that have occurred combined with the depopulation and isolation of the populace (unofficially there are about 1,000,000 Namergivers in Barsaive), leaves much of the province unexplored.
Many of the archetypes of traditional fantasy rpgs can be found in Earthdawn, which I think benefits the setting as the inclusion of too many details unique to a given setting may alienate potential players can make the game frustrating to play with players trying to puzzle out basic setting information. Many of the games being revived either through the Old School Renaissance, or for later games, through new editions, have many familiar fantasy elements to them, while the games with more bizarre elements, e.g. Jorune and Tekumel, languish in relative obscurity. With that being said, there is enough different in Earthdawn to distinguish it from the typical Western European themed settings.
The system used retains much of the feel of the older editions and in doing so falls in the more rules heavy category of rpgs. That being said, a great amount of effort has been made to tie all of the system elements directly into the setting thereby reducing the feel of needless complexity. There are several editing errors, mainly in page references, including the dreaded p.XX and references to pages that do not exist. These problems aside, this edition of Earthdawn does an excellent job of improving on the system and condensing nearly 20 years of game information into one book that will appeal to old veterans and new players alike.